Monday, February 04, 2008

R.I.P. John Stewart

Folk singer and songwriter John Stewart died last month, passing away in the same San Diego hospital where he was born 68 years earlier. For some well-written obituaries about his 50-year career as a musician and songwriter, go here and here.

His career never hit the big time - my guess is he was just too clean cut and harmless to make much of a splash in the turbulent last 1960s and early 1970s when he did the bulk of his solo recording - but I've known his music my whole life.

John Stewart was absolutely my mom's favorite and I can clearly remember hearing his signature records - California Bloodlines and Willard - regularly as a child. I don't remember liking them, but they were there. And later when I branched out musically I gave them another shot.

His voice was deep and soothing like a great storyteller - which he was. Stewart seemed to be wrapped up in some visions of a truly good America, one that didn't exist because it had passed, or because it hadn't come yet. Such nostalgia runs through his songs, but he was no conservative - he stumped for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 after leaving the Kingston Trio.

If nothing else, Stewart had a varied and fascinating career. He got his start in a top-selling combo that seemed to be the safe alternative to all the new groundbreaking folkies led by Dylan. His most well-known song is "Daydream Believer," an impeccably catchy (and well, dreamy) pop gem the Monkees took to No. 1 for four weeks in the winter after the summer of love.

Stewart's run of quality troubadour albums started not long after Kennedy was gunned down on the campaign trail. He brought folk and country together with a storyteller's charm for a certain type of Americana that somehow skipped over Gram Parsons and the rest of the hippies.

Then, whether he was influenced by disco or glossy California rock, he turned once again, donning a white suit and sticking a red rose between his guitar strings for one of the gaudier album covers ever. But Bombs Away Dream Babies would be his biggest hit, with gloss to spare from the guitar, vocals and production (and who knows what else) of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. But the songs are top-quality, like he finally started writing with night in mind instead of day.

He never stopped touring. I don't know how many times my folks saw Stewart play, but that last time, in December of 2002, they brought us kids along. Stewart was an elder statesman of folk by then, but he never lost his die-hard fans and (I'm guessing, but I think this is a safe one) never put on a bum show.

It kinda hit me when I saw that he died, and it actually felt like weighty news to pass along to my mom. But later I put on some tunes and I don't think there'll ever be a day when John Stewart's music isn't a familiar comfort for me.

John Stewart - July, You're a Woman (live)
John Stewart - California Bloodlines (live)
John Stewart - Gold
John Stewart - Heart of the Dream


Anonymous said...

Good job! It was weighty news to hear. There is a comment on the Kingston Trio site that said he had been diagnosed last summer with Alzheimer's ... so maybe going out with a stroke now was a blessing. He spent Dec. recording a new album that I am looking forward to hearing. - Mom

Peter from Germany said...

It struck me to hear that John Stewart died this years. It was 3 days ago that I was searching for a song by Stevie Nicks and by surprise came to her box set Enchanted and the song Gold. It comes to my mind that I had two records by John Stewart "Bombs Away Dream Babies" & "Dream Babies go Hollywood" which I can not hear anymore because I had no turn table anymore.
I thought it was a good idea to have a look into Wikepedia for John and was shocked to read he was dead.
I loved his voice and the two records I owe.